Benghazi protest
A Libyan protester in Benghazi this week. Photo by Reuters
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On Wednesday, it seemed that the terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip - Hamas and Islamic Jihad - were trying to take advantage of the rapid transformations sweeping the Middle East, and reignite the situation on the border with Israel after a few weeks of quiet. A border incident led to the firing of a Grad rocket at Be'er Sheva for the first time since Operation Cast Lead two years ago. Whoever decided to fire the rocket was well aware that striking a residential neighborhood would generate a harsh Israeli response and spark a new escalation in hostilities.

Given that Hamas has no clear interest in such escalation, and given Islamic Jihad's close ties with Tehran - Iranian hands may be involved here. The regime in Tehran is meanwhile also busy trying to curb local opposition Green Movement and to address the country's severe economic situation (the workers at the Abadan refinery went on strike this week ). But Iranian leaders might have a double aim: to suppress the domestic protest and to further destabilize the region. There is more than a reasonable suspicion that Iran was involved in the unrest in Bahrain. Tehran also dispatched warships through the Suez Canal in order to create a provocation, and its emissary in Lebanon, Hassan Nasrallah, threatened to conquer the Galilee from Israel. In addition, the Iranians are examining new possibilities in Egypt, now that the local security forces have been weakened.

On Tuesday evening, Col. Muammar Gadhafi delivered a speech from his former residence in Bab al-Azizia. It was the rant of someone of questionable sanity, who is in denial that his rule could be nearing its end. He threatened repeatedly to unleash a bloodbath in Libya, and this already seems to be happening; a few hundred people at least have been murdered by his forces in Libya's streets. He called the demonstrators drugged rats and drunkards, after calling them dogs the night before.

During his more than four decades in power, the "colonel" has experienced many rough times, including insurrection (an assassination attempt in 1993 ) and confrontations with demonstrators (anti-government protests in 1996 ). Libya's radical Islamic movement has considered him an enemy. The late U.S. President Ronald Reagan dubbed him a "mad dog," and in 1986 the United States bombed the same palace where he delivered his speech this week.

As of press time, Gadhafi's forces were in control only in Tripoli; the rest of the country had fallen to the opposition. Whole brigades, including the elite 5th Brigade and the Green Hill unit, have joined the regime's opponents.

Army units handed over their weapons to civilians and to armed militias. The al-Zuwayya and al-Warfalla tribes announced that they were joining the opposition. Gadhafi lost control of eastern Libya - Cyrenaica and its capital Benghazi, Libya's second largest city - to unorganized groups that started to clean the streets and direct traffic. The fighting spread to western Libya as well, where opposition forces took over several of the large cities, notably Zawiya and Misurata, and of course to the capital, Tripoli.

On Wednesday morning, Libyan Interior Minister Abdul Fattah Younis al Abidi, who is in charge of the domestic security forces, announced he was resigning and joining the opposition. Only a few hours earlier, Gadhafi had boasted that al Abidi was his ally and had fought with him against the Americans and Egypt during Anwar Sadat's era.

Gadhafi is seen as an unusual leader, capricious and prone to bizarre behavior even compared to other dictators in Africa and the Arab world. He likes to wear colorful robes and eye-catching hats, and has a bevy of female bodyguards.

He was born in 1942 to a Bedouin family in northern Libya. At 21 he entered a military academy in Benghazi, and at 24 became a signals officer in the Libyan army. Three years later, at the ripe old age of 27, he led a group of officers in a military coup that led to the ouster of King Idris. The self-styled Revolutionary Command Council took power, headed by Capt. Gadhafi, who promoted himself to the rank of colonel.

According to Prof. Yehudit Ronen, an expert on Libya, the young captain led the revolt imbued with the feeling that he was capable of fomenting change.

"I tend not to belittle Gadhafi," she says. "Libya now has 10 civilian airfields, a respectable network of roads, hotels and a developed petroleum industry. He created an artificial waterway, and moved water from subterranean reservoirs from the Kufra region to the north of the country, where 80 percent of the country's population is concentrated. Libya has the highest rate of literacy in this region. Higher education is widely available, and more than 50 percent of university students are women."

Gadhafi has effectively forged national cohesion in a place where there was none, Prof. Ronen explains. "Before his rise to power, the country was administered based on tribal groups, which managed their economic and political affairs independently. Gadhafi arrived and started to break apart those frameworks in an effort to shift loyalty to the government and the regime. He bestowed prestige and money upon all the tribal chiefs.

"At the same time, he prevented various figures in the Libyan governmental system from consolidating power and rotated them between positions. Nor did he hesitate to use all the means at his disposal to strike at the opposition."

Ardent pan-Arabist

The system worked well, Ronen notes - until the first cracks appeared in the 1980s.

Initially, Gadhafi was considered an ardent supporter of pan-Arab ideology; he made many attempts to develop ties with other countries. In certain senses, he probably saw himself as the heir to his hero, Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser.

In 1976, he published "The Green Book," a compendium of rules in which he ostensibly set forth his worldview. He called the method of government in Libya "sultat a-sha'ab" ("the people's authority "), introducing a kind of Islamic socialism that fused religious principles (banning the sale of alcohol and gambling ) with social-welfare concepts. For example, Libyans are entitled to free education and health services; public transportation and homes are subsidized, but trade unions and strikes are banned.

Still, the private sector is very weak compared to the public sector, resulting in unemployment once estimated at 30 percent. The state rakes in vast profits of nearly $50 billion a year from the petroleum industry. But one of Gadhafi's mistakes was to focus exclusively on oil.

Governing institutions in Libya were largely symbolic, Ronen points out, citing as examples the cabinet, known as the General People's Committee, and the parliament, which lacks any powers.

"The bottom line was that he advised and they consented," she notes. "In practice, Libya was run by revolutionary committees made up of fanatic young people who supported the ideas of the revolution."

But beyond this, she adds, Gadhafi possessed enormous charisma, overweening self-confidence and great tenacity: "It is not fair to judge him at the nadir of his life. He was able to make people feel that they had something to look forward to, that their lives had a purpose. He had quite a few good periods in which he was able to set forth goals and present them as the Libyan people's aims."

After years of assisting terrorist organizations, Gadhafi decided to transform his image and that of his country. The change began with his fight against radical Islam in Libya, which he won in the 1990s. He later condemned the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.

In 2003, after Iraq's conquest by the United States, he announced that he was abandoning his project to manufacture weapons of mass destruction and was ready for tight United Nations supervision. That decision led to the lifting of the economic sanctions on Libya and improved Gadhafi's status in the international community. In March 2004, British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Libya and met with him, and other Western leaders followed suit.

In 2006, Tripoli marked the 20th anniversary of the American bombing of Gadhafi's quarters, in which his adopted daughter, Hanna, was killed. (The singer Lionel Ritchie dedicated a song to her. ) In 2006, the British ambassador to Libya said Gadhafi had changed his policy because he and his aides had decided to do something about the fact that years of centralized economy had left many educated young people jobless. However, the change may have been too little and too late; those unemployed young people launched the demonstrations in Cyrenaica on February 17.

'Al Jazeera effect'

The civil war raging in Libya poses no immediate cause for concern in Israel. However, the long-term effects that the country's possible dismantlement will have on the struggle against global terrorism remain unclear. The opposition (as in Tunisia and Egypt ) does not have a formal, recognized leadership, and it is hard to imagine who or what will succeed Gadhafi. Libya might be swept by a series of tribal wars, which would make the country a haven for Global Jihad activists.

Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote this week that since the war in Iraq in 2003, Libya has been second only to Saudi Arabia in exporting terrorists to Iraq. Many of them came from the Cyrenaica city of Darnah. A Global Jihad infrastructure already exists in Libya; indeed, just a few days ago residents of Abayda, near Darnah, declared the establishment of an Islamic caliphate there.

On the other hand, Prof. Ronen maintains that although post-Gadhafi Libya will be different, the population, the infrastructure and the economic indicators will be the same. An alternative to the current regime will eventually appear, she says: "The establishment has quite a few talented people, technocrats, security officials and diplomats who were at the center of the decision-making process and will constitute the leadership reserve when Gadhafi goes."

In the meantime, the "Al Jazeera effect" is playing out in an arena closer to Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan announced this week that it will resume its demonstrations against the regime, and opposition groups are demanding that the king be stripped of the power to form governments and dissolve parliament.

Similarly, there are growing indications that the Palestinian Authority is seriously considering creating a unity government with Hamas. The PA's most important ally, Hosni Mubarak, is gone. Senior Fatah officials have also despaired that the United States will convince Israel to stop building in the settlements.

Fatah's concern that demonstrations could break out against Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen ) led the PA to declare municipal elections within six months. The PA's desire to assuage the Palestinian public can also explain Fatah's angry demonstrations in a few West Bank cities, in which American flags were burned.

From that point of view, U.S. President Barack Obama did Abbas a huge favor by vetoing the Palestinian-sponsored Security Council draft resolution to condemn construction in the settlements, and by threatening to cut American aid to the PA. Suddenly, Abbas and Fatah look like Palestinian heroes who refuse to give under to American pressure and remain steadfast in their demands for "Palestinians' rights." This may also reflect how the U.S. administration is perceived by the PA leadership: weak, confused and lacking influence over Israel.